The Pelicans seem to have committed themselves to small ball. How has it worked, and will it continue to work?
Over the past four games, Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, the Pelicans two lumbering big men, have played a combined 21 minutes, all of which were by Ajinca in a game against the Miami Heat. Since then, neither have touched the court and it would appear that the team has finally committed to going small. This means letting Anthony Davis hold down the center spot full time, something the team has avoided in the past to try and prevent him from racking up the wear and tear that comes along with battling the game’s behemoths.
The move has paid immediate dividends for them as well, as they have gone 3-0 since making the switch, and now sit only a game and a half back of the eighth seed in the western conference. They haven’t faced the stiffest of competition in that time span, but for a team that’s below .500 and trying to make a playoff push, they’ll take any win they can get.
As we all know, one benefit of going small is the increased floor space you have to work with. Of course, you have to hit shots to fully reap the rewards of that spacing, and so far the Pelicans have done that. They are shooting 41% from deep in their last three games, a marked increased on their mark for the full season (34.6%). It’s hard to say if that’s sustainable, but the team shot 37% from three overall in the month of December, and they have capable shooters.
One trend pointing towards sustainably, is that the Pelicans are hitting their open shots.
Removing a traditional big man from the lineup also allows Davis to play closer to the basket on both offense and defense. Defensively, it means he can hang back when defending the pick and roll, forming an impenetrable wall of limbs between the ball and the basket. The pure rim protection numbers from Davis aren’t good, but it’s not very often that players go directly at him, and he has gotten very good at containing the ball-handler while not losing track of his own man.
And then there are still the nearly inhuman blocks. Davis can get to shots no matter where the offensive player launches it from, and he gets his hand on attempts that other defenders would be silly to even contest.
Additionally, the move to center seems to have unlocked his ability as a rebounder. The Pelicans, a good defensive rebounding team normally, have improved slightly since the move to the small lineup, and Davis is the reason for that. He’s averaging 15.3 rebounds over the last four games, which is second in the league in that span of time. He is also clearing 32.2% of defensive rebounds in that same stretch.
He has been able to assert himself more on the offensive boards as well since the switch. Davis is pulling down 3.5 offensive rebounds per game as a center, which is much better than even the marks he put up early in his career when he was given more freedom to chase offensive rebounds.
Still, Davis’ own brilliance would all be for naught if it weren’t for the contributions of the players in front of him. Jrue Holiday, Langston Galloway, Solomon Hill, and Dante Cunningham have all been fantastic on defense over this stretch, and their ability to switch on the perimeter has brought New Orleans into the modern era on defense. They are first in the league in defensive rating over the past four games, and are now ranked thirteenth in that category over the whole season.
The schedule for the Pelicans is about to get a lot harder, with six of their next seven games coming on the road, starting with a trip to Cleveland. Yet, four of those seven games come against teams sitting at or below .500. They should be winnable, and if the Pelicans can have success on their road trip, they will be positioned nicely for a playoff run in the back half of the season. If they make it, going small may be the biggest reason for it.